11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop

For a long while, it seemed like Guadalcanal Diary’s fourth and, as it turned out, final album, Flip Flop, wasn’t going to get played on 90FM at all. I doubt the station was especially high on any of the record label’s priority lists, given the fairly small city we broadcast from and the modest 3610 watts we pumped through our transmitter (when we expanded to 11,500 watts a couple of years later, the uptick in interest was noticeable). There were some small but significant labels that didn’t even bother sending us records and a couple of the majors could also be sporadic. When there was a missing release from a major label–if a record didn’t show up or, worse yet, was stolen from the station–it was often extremely difficult to contact them and convince them to send out a replacement copy. So when Flip Flop was released, starting climbing the CMJ charts (so someone had it) and didn’t seem to be showing up in our daily mail delivery, our Program Director started working the phones. He tried so often, to such little apparent interest from the relevant record rep, that we’d basically given up on ever seeing the album at the station. And then, out of the blues, weeks after its official release, it showed up in our mailbox in the Communication department office.

I don’t share this because I think it’s some scintillating story about the inner workings of the radio station. (Phone calls to bored records reps! Such drama! So juicy!) Instead, I mean it as explanatory precursor to the acknowledgment that I was surprised by this record’s high placement on the chart. In my memory, Flip Flop remains the record that we didn’t have when we were supposed to, that we placed in rotation well after its proper release. I associate that with some sort of missed opportunity, but that’s obviously not the case. Instead, it may have benefited from its delayed placement in our music library.

At the time, the newest music went into Heavy Rotation, which was the smallest subsection of the active library, usually only around fifteen albums. After a couple weeks, the album moved over to Medium Rotation, which held around twenty-five to thirty albums, staying there a month or so before moving down to Light Rotation, with approximately the same number of albums but with far fewer slots on the hourly time clock our DJs followed during most of the programming day. On the other hand, despite having the fewest albums in it, Heavy Rotation was very well represented on the clock and DJs would be expected to play over half of the albums in that section in a given three-hour shift. It was rigged to emphasize the newest of the new, a system that at least one trade journal told us effectively disqualified us from submitting charts to them because they preferred programming models designed to encourage slower builds in a record’s popularity. A side effect of our method was a little resurgence for certain albums late in their rotation runs because a single had finally clicked or fully crossed over to commercial radio, reminding our DJs of the album and inspiring them to grab it for a few more plays before it was relegated to the main library. In some ways, the Guadalcanal Diary album was riding this late burst of renewed discovery when it first hit the station. Fully primed for it, the DJs found the record right away and gave it healthy plays all the way through its rotation life.

Naturally, it helped that the album was perfectly suited to the collective taste of the station staff. It was direct and catchy, sharply produced but not too slick. The simple, fulsome guitar lines shared prominence with lead singer’s Murray Attaway’s nicely twanging voice. Hailing from Marietta, Georgia, the band moved in the wake of R.E.M. to enough of a degree that the title of their debut release, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man was acknowledged to be in reference to their place in the music world in relation to the Athens band. That was somewhat true of Flip Flop too, as it sounded toughened up from previous work in roughly the same manner of R.E.M. albums like Lifes Rich Pageant and Document. Like R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary had been put into the jangle rock box, and Flip Flop seemed like a thorough attempt to escape it. A song like “Pretty is As Pretty Does,” with it’s punchy drum beat and ashtray dirty guitar chords, wasn’t going to get them on Headbanger’s Ball or anything, but it did have a little more punch, announced itself as a song from a band unafraid to turn up their amps and rattle the back wall of the bar.

There was also an slyly unsettling quality to a lot of the lyrics, a sense of cheery solidity masking a profoundly dissatisfied core. This was probably best typified by the lead single, “Always Saturday,” which inspired a promotional clip that tipped the song’s hand and which our outgoing Station Manager called the best music video he’d ever seen. The creepiness of the video invited a little closer scrutiny of the song’s meaning beyond the imagery of sunny day and bright green neighborhoods punctuated by the exuberant chorus of “I wanna live where it’s like today/ Where it’s always this way/ Where it’s always Saturday.” I tend to focus on lyrics like “Everyone’s going everywhere/ So many choices it’s not fair/ I hop in the car and I just sit there,” which makes the astounding freedom of the day seem oppressive, even depressing. Sunny days create a lot of shadows. “Whiskey Talk” is a splendid honky tonk stomper, but the lyrics are a scathing assessment of the carnage created by drunken behavior. There are similar seam of judgment and cataloged personal betrayal cutting through “The Likes of You.” Even the infectious nonsense syllable singalong “…Vista” takes time to lament “Every time I go to town/ The boys start kicking my dog around” and “I got a wife who’s the devil’s tool.” These are fun songs, but they ain’t happy ones.

As I noted before, this album represented the end of Guadalcanal Diary, at least until the inevitable reunion shows started to happen. The band members dispersed to different musical efforts and Attaway took a stab at a solo career. I once saw him open a show at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall. Early on, the audience figured out they could yell his last name as punned encouragement after every song (“Atta way!”), a situation he ruefully endured. As I recall, he played a decent number of Guadalcanal Diary songs that night.

Unlike some of the other albums on this list, Flip Flop became one of the standards of 90FM, at least back then. It was pulled out of the library with as much frequency as more significant albums from more popular artists. It’s a good thing Elektra finally broke down and sent it to us.

20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate

10 thoughts on “College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 11

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